Elephant, Slaves and Rubies - Arakan's Place in the trade network of the Bay of Bengal

Elephant, Slaves and Rubies- Arakans place in the trade network of the Bay of Bengal

Dr. Jacques P. Leider

Preliminary remarks

In the context of research on the trade network of the Bay of Bengal as well as in the wider frame of Southeast Asian studies, Arakan's place has largely remained a blank space in our knowledge due to a lack of studies on this Western province of Myanmar. But the regional importance of the kingdom during the XVIth. and XVIIth. centuries makes it a basic requirement to appreciate the role of trade in the general frame of its political and cultural evolution.

Beside the more evident reasons related to its own destiny, Arakan's trade is a subject worth to be studied for several other reasons.

It appears as a major aspect of the relations between Myanmar proper, that means especially the state-formations in the Irrawaddy valley, and Arakan. In the recent research on the Portuguese presence in the Bay of Bengal (e.g. Subrahmanyam, Guedes), Arakan has been mentioned as a major place of Portuguese activities. Though the Portuguese are mostly considered to have been mercenaries and pirates, trade was not absent from their occupations as we will see. Looking at the relationship between trade and kingship, Arakan, whose case has been compared with maritime states in Indonesia, is also a quite peculiar case, that deserves due observation and analysis.

Some scholars, leaving aside the task of any thorough study, have admitted as an undoubtful fact, that trade in Arakan must have been flourishing, as the kingdom rose to its prominent height since the end of the XVIth. century. In fact, the situation seems to be a little bit more complicate. This paper intends to provide a brief outline of Arakan's place in the trade of the bay of Bengal covering the different aspects to which we need to pay attention, and focusing especially on questions of research and analysis connected into the network of the bay, in a second step, the interest of traders in Arakan will be highlighted.

(1). Arakan's integration into the network of the Bay of Bengal

Most things that can be assuringly said on Arkan's trade before the British conquest in 1825 are related to the XVIIth. or XVIIIth. century, because most of our sources date from mid-XVIIth. to early XIXth. century. TO correctly appreciate information is particularly difficult, because sources are scarce and vague. Extrapolations are risky, for the simple reason that Arakan was a major regional power up to 1670, but steadily lost its prominent role during the XVIIIth. century. In early XIXth. century reports (e.g. Foley, Paton, Comstock), Arakan appears as area where hardly any trade was pursued and the majority of the population lived basically in autarky.

Beside its general hypotheses, this paper claims to make relevant statements for the period between the early XVIth. century and the end of the XVIIth. centuries. In the second decade of the XVIth. century, Tome Pires mentions the presence of Arakanese traders in Malaka and the presence of Indian and Mon traders in Mrauk-U1. At the end of the XVIIth. century, having visited the area probably around 1690, the Scottish captain Alexander Hamilton writes that Arakan formerly made a certain figure of trade. Between this first mention in a Western source and the one which reflects on a revolved past extend roughly 180 years which encompass Arakan's most active part in the socio-political development of the north-eastern area of the Bay of Bengal.

Why was Arakan particularly strongly integrated during that time? Which factors were favoring that integration?

Generally, it should be recalled, that from the start of the XVth to the XVIIth century, South Asian and Southeast Asian trade took advantage from the economic boom that marked the economic life of the whole area. Arakan was not an exception to this prosperous state of commercial activities.

The most important reason was the rise of the Mrauk U dynasty whose kings were overall favourable to the expansion of trade. The first mention of the presence of foreign traders in Mrauk U in Arakanese sources, dates from the mid of the XVIth. century. The numbers of their ships are hailed by the Arakanese chronicler as a mark of the glorious reign of King Mong Ba (1531-1553). In a letter, probably written around 1519, to the king of Portugal, the Arakanese king invites the Portuguese to visit his kingdom for trade and kindly assures protection to them. About hundred years later, we can find similar instances in relation to the Dutch traders of the VOC. It was this mentality of oppresses that invited the favourable judgement of British colonial writers like Maurice Collis, D.G.E. Hall or G.Harvey on Arakanese kings.

The fact that the Arakanese kings were strongly inclined to the furthering of trade can be related to two reasons. On one side, trade in luxury items provided the court with all the prestigious goods that heightened the outer appearance of the palace and its celebrations. The well know account of the Augustine father Manrique, for all its inaccuracies and exaggerations, provides us with a general picture what the splendour of the court of Mrauk U must have been in the middle of the XVIIth. century. On the other side, trade assured the court of a regular income in taxes and offered a vast field for the king's own commercial interests. Royal monopolies on buying and selling goods (as documented by Dutch sources) made the king the most important trader in the kingdom. It has to be assumed that the revenue generated by trade was largely used to fuel the military expansion and the security policy of Arakan's kings during Arakan's great century (ca. 1570-1670): a permanent fleet, garrisons, formidable defence-works around the capital city, salaries for foreign mercenaries.

In any way, a reflection on Arakan's trade conveys the impression that the relationship between Arakan's kingship and the development of trade in the country was detrimental to both.

Looking at the map, we might define three circles for Arakan's trade relations. The outer circle extends in the West to the Maldive islands, from where Arakan imported the cowries, to be used as a conventional means of paying. To the east, this circle might vaguely be extended to Malacca, Aceh and Java. A medium circle includes the Coromandel (Eastern) coast of India and the lower part of Myanmar. It involved especially the ports of Masulipatam and Pulicat and probably some mirror Indian ports. The inner circle is formed by Arakan's relations with Bengal, especially southeastern Bengal and Upper Burma. It can be easily seen, that most of this trade was seaborne trade. While the vaguely defined outer circle extends to the Indian Ocean, the medium and inner circle, the more relevant ones, spread out to a vast area of the Bay of Bengal. Though Arakan's trade was largely maritime trade, an important axe was its land connection to the Burmese heartland in Upper Myanmar, the so-called trans-arakanese trade.

The general nature of the trade from and to Arakan fits better into the description of Van Leur's peddling coastal trade in Indonesian waters than into the picture of enterprising South-Indian merchants or Bengal Muslim trade investors sending their merchantmen abroad. One can possibly assume that there was not necessarily a single connection between one port in Arakan and one other port, Indian or Burmese, but a connecting relation between several ports.

Exact trade relations are not well known before the end of In the XVIth. century. More precisely though, the following 'roads' can be named. The Portuguese had at least during some years in the middle of the XVIth. century a carreira voyage between San Tome and Chittagong. In the XVIIth. century, regular (that would mean, on an annual basis) connections existed with Masulipatam, the major outlet of Golconda, and further south, Pulicat. The two ports were relevant for the Muslim traders as well as for more sporadic contacts with the Dutch factors there. The transarakanese roads involved the passes over the Arakan Roma; there were three major passes: (1) the one starting from Am, a market town on the Am River, reaching Na phe, or Maphe on the eastern side, from where the Irrawaddy could be reached following the Man River; (2) the Talak pass crosses the Roma further north from the Am road and the Mun River can be followed before turning up north to Salin and Sinbyu; (3) leaving Arakan from Taungkut, one reaches Kama on the western bank of the Irrawaddy.

From Am, traders went on by boat to the sea and Mrauk U, Chittagong, or any major destination in Bengal could be reached by sailing along the coastline and following rivers.

Though one would assume, that there were regular relations with the delta area as well, less can be said about Arakan's trade with Lower Myanmar than with upper Myanmar. We will see that the political background was one major reason that the kings of Arakan and Ava took an eager interest in the development of the Transarakanese trade.

The case of Chittagong needs a short departure from our subject due to the fact of its pretty complicate history during the XVIth. century and above all for the reason of its tremendous military and commercial importance for the Arakanese kings.

The port city had been conquered a first time by a Muslim general (Fakhrudhin) in 1373 and had later rather loosely formed part of the sultanate of Bengal. In the XVth. century, its southern part came under the attack of the Arakanese kings and at the beginning of the XVIth. century, it was the envy of the sultan and both the kings of Tripura and Arakan. While the king of Tripura (Dhanamanikya) possessed in 1513, the Arakanese took it some time later, only to be dispossessed of its control in 1517 by Nusrat, the sultan's heir. The Portuguese started to come to the area around 1516 and we have an excellent Portuguese description of Chittagong in 1521, when it was under Muslim government. The early Portuguese contacts with Arakan date from this period, but unfortunately the history of the Portuguese presence in the northeastern part of the Bay before 1600 has yet to be unraveled. Chittagong was conquered by king Mong Ba around 1539/1540, putting an end to prevailing anarchy in the area, but it was probably lost again to the Muslims at the end of his reign. A carreira voyage to Chittagong could thus have been to either to the sultan's or the king of Arakan's port!

The ultimate conquest of Chittagong by the Arakanese can be dated, according to my own estimates, around 1578, though the arguments for this hypothesis can not be expounded here. The Arakanese controlled the city until 1666, when it was taken by the Mughol governor.

Chittagong has been described by early Portuguese visitors as the entry to Bengal, a prosperous cosmopolitan city to where traders and mercenaries from all Asia flocked; father Manrique considers it a hundred years later as the entry to Arakan, a foremost commercial centre of tremendous interest for the kingdom. Just opposite the city, on the southern bank of the Karnaphuli river, was located a luso-asiatic settlement of Portuguese Christians, topazes (half-casts) and their slaves, known under the name of Dianga.

The second major port of Arakan was Mrauk U, that is the Capital City of Arakan. The exact location of the port facilities, called Bandel by the Dutch sources, was somewhere south of the city, but the sources are not very clear on the issue and my enquiries in Arakan itself have yet been unfruitful. The description of Manrique and the far more reliable description of Mrauk U and its surroundings by a Dutch doctor, Wouter Schouten, who lived for four months in Arakan's capital (1660-1661), show us that the population was very numerous and the general prosperity had reached a remarkable level. The fact that the overall majority of the Arakanese live in the valleys of the Kaladan, Lemro and Mayu, is equally well demonstrated by modern statistics.

A major question of research pertains to the relationship between Bengal and Arakan. The study of the political relationship between the two areas would even suggest that there was no commerce at all, as there reigned bitter enmity and rivalry for decades. When Manrique arrived in Arakan, he reports that for seven years (that means between 1622 and 1629, the beginning of the reign of king Thirithudhamma Raza) no catholic priest had been able to cross the gulf for the reason that war had prevailed and no Bengal ship was secure while running into an Arakanese war-vessel. On the other side, Luso-asiatic slave traders deported men and women from eastern Bengal, dragging them ruthlessly into slavery and sold them at the ports of Balasore, Pipli and Hugli. Beside popular Bengal sources, vivid descriptions of this trade are found in Schouten's travelogue and in Berniers memories. As this trade went on for decades and as Muslim traders from all over Asia came freely to Mrauk U, one could hardly pretend - as has been suggested by Indian historians- that the Portuguese presence and Arakan's aggressive policy were a major impediment to trade in the northern part of the Bay of Bengal. As our knowledge is yet diffuse, any kind of generalization is blurring the view, which should be refocused on the study of the varying political conditions throughout the seventeenth century.

(2). The foreign traders in Arakan

It seems pretty clear that most of the trade done in Arakan was handled by foreigners. The biggest traders' community was the Muslims from India. Pires mentions the presence of Kling traders at the beginning of the XVIth. century, but later Muslims appears prominently. There presence is probably the most undervalued factor as regards- generally speaking- the Muslim presence and their impact in Arakan. Their part in the trade relations of Arakan with the rest of Asia was probably more relevant for the general state of the country than rather cultural aspects (like numismatics, Muslim title or the presence of eunuchs) that have been repeatedly boasted as proofs of a Muslim influence on the court of Arakan. Muslim trade interests in Arakan were firmly established at the end of the XVIth. century. There was at the time an open rivalry with the Portuguese diaspora vying for the king's favours. When Pegu was conquered by the troops of the prince of Taungngu and his Arakanese allies and pillaged, Syriam remained as the major territorial boon for the Arakanese (around 1600). The fact that king Mong Razagri rather trusted the Portuguese to revive the activities of the port is underscored by the fact that he let the port in the hands of de Brito who some two years later betrayed him and engaged in a dubious policy of conciliating the Arakanese king while fostering his own ambitions. By Portuguese sources around 1607, we know that the Muslim merchants at Mrauk U had been strongly opposed to the move of the Arakanese king who seemed to unduly favor the Portuguese interests.

According to Manrique, the Muslim traders went to Bengal, Masulipatam, Martaban (Tenasserim), Aceh and Java, defining thus about the whole area of what Arakan's trade was made of. Schouten further mentions traders from Surat and Coromandel, who did not only do trade, but were moneylenders and brokers as well. Schouten's remark that the Muslim traders were not settling in the country but came there only to do their business, evidently rises the question of an existing Muslim community identifying itself with the trade in and out of the country.

With most likely the exception of the handling of the slave in Arakan itself, the Muslim traders were responsible for the import and export of most trade items.

Which were the items traded?

It is important to note that a large share of Arakan's trade happened to be transit goods. A major trade item were the rubies coming from Ava over the passes. Though a sizable number of rubies might have ended at the court of Arakan, most rubies were re-exported to all over India, as sources tell us (again Tome Pires is the first to mention the fact!). At the time that de Brito had virtually closed the outbound trade of the northern and central plain in the first decade of the XVIIth. century, rubies could be easier exported through Arakan. The kind of agreement that the lord of Nyaung-yam (father of the future king Anaukphetlun) had striken in 1603 with Mong Razagri of keeping the road over the Roma secure, testifies to the sensible issue of cross-border trade and the repercussions of its interruptions. The arrival of 'transarakanese' rubies is for instance certified by English sources at Masulipatam in the XVIIth. century. Even when the kingdom declined, Muslim traders kept on striking good deals while buying precious stones in Arakan, states Hamilton. It seems also that precious stones had been available in large quantities lately after the death of Shah Shuja, the political refugee from India who had brought his treasuries to Arakan and lost them while his guard tried a coup against the royal palace in early 1661. Other less valuable trade items like wax, lacquer boxes, animal skins, buffalo horns and ropes, mentioned in various reports on the country up to the nineteenth century, were probably local products and made up another part of the countries exports. The export of locally produced rough cotton textiles was limited. The Dutch bought them for clothing their slaves.

English and Dutch sources of the XVIIth. century mention the export of tame and highly prized elephants and ivory to India and Persia.

The presence of European traders, especially Portuguese, in Arakan is acknowledged, but in fact little is known on these mostly petty traders.

One activity of trade seems to have been firmly in the hands of the Luso-asiatic community; it is well confirmed by Father Manrique, Bernier and Schouten: this is the slave trade. Beside regular attacks of the Arakanese navy against Mogul outposts, which tended to become rare after the period of the Arakanese wrrrior-kings (1571-1624), raiding the rivers of south and southeastern Bengal with rapid rowing-boats, capturing whoever they could get and reselling these poor people on the markets of Chittagong, Mrauk u or on the open sea was the major occupation of the male population of Dianga. Though one can not elaborate on the whole impact of this trade, its usefulness for the Arakanese kingship was considerable. The effect of terror it created upon the mind of the Bengal country people was a long-lasting effect that could be termed as defensive psychological warfare. One might recall that the Arakanese had systematically depopulated the northern parts of Chittagong up to the Feni River. On the other side, the workforce, as the king could choose the most qualified slaves (handicraft, artists) for his own needs. Others were sold as an agricultural labour force. Based on Manrique and some later sources, one can assume a varying average of 1500 to 5000 slaves a year. Slaves were thus a major trade item and, in terms of productivity, a not negligible contribution to the country's workforce. Slaves were also a major export item for the Dutch

The Dutch played at least for a certain time a prominent role in Arakan's trade, as we know since D.G.E. Hall's study on the Dutch presence in Arakan. The Dutch presence in Arakan is nevertheless older than is suggested by Hall's articles of 1936 that was limited on an analysis of written sources. Current research in Holland will probably change our perception of Dutch trade in Arakan and hopefully also of our understanding of Arakanese history. Dutch ships had helped to beat off the famous Portuguese attack of Goan ships allied to the adventurer Tibau on Mrauk U. Their presence grew stronger after 1624 with the Mrauk U trading post and demand for slaves was running high up to 1645, when the post was closed. Between 1641 and 1645, a special tax had to paid per slave and only non-qualified slaves could be sold to the Dutch. When the Dutch post reopened in 1653, slaves played only a minor role. The Dutch finally retreated from Arakan under the political pressure of the Mogul governor of Bengal at the eve of the attack on Chittagong (1665). In 1666, to the loss of Chittagong, one of the pillars of their military power in the area, the Arakanese thus lost also a major trading partner.

The other major item that the Dutch bought was rice. The sale of rice was a monopoly of the king. It is difficult to know if rice was exported on a regular basis or only if exceeding rice provisions were available. Rice and slaves were brought to Batavia where the last ones were in urgent demand on the plantations and rice a necessary staple. Little is still known on the export of rice to India.

Dutch sources also mention the export of indigo, but the Dutch themselves only bought a limited amount of it. It would be interesting to know how much naval construction played a role in exports, as notably Chittagong was famous for the building of boats.

The foremost imports to Arakan were the textiles from India; these were again partly re-exported to upper Myanmar. Iron was imported from India and Japan. Our sources do not account for the high number of artillery pieces that the King of Arakan had. Far-reaching questions arise also on the behalf of the export/import of gold and silver. Arakanese silver coins from the seventeenth century are a well-known proof to the prosperity of the Kingdom in these times. Did the silver come mainly from India or from the eastern regions?

Very little is known on native traders. The presence of Arakanese traders living peacefully in Dhaka is certified in the second half of the eighteenth century, but up to now, I have no proof of their earlier activities, though we might evidently assume that Arakanese traders were active on the interior markets. The same problem of a lack of sources pertains to Burmese or Mon traders. The presence of Mon traders has been mentioned by Pires, but beside his testimony and the general statement that the Mons played an important part in the Arakanese royal guard after an important number of them had been deported to Arakan, following the conquest of Pegu, little can be said.

As I have shown in an article on the Am road, Shan traders have been active with their buffalo caravans on the mountain roads, notably the Am road, after the Burmese conquest of 1785. Perhaps this was in fact the continuation of what had been going on for decades.


Looking at Arakan's place in the Bay of Bengal, two things have to be firmly stressed. Arakan had no trade items that were of an indispensable or such enviable nature, so that trade would have been naturally flowing to the country. For the kings, trade was an important and even vital issue and they tried to favor it to reap its benefits as much as they possibly could. One should not forget that the court was at the same time a major consumer of luxury goods and as such vital to the continuity of a business atmosphere in the city. The dependence on a class of foreign merchants and some definite advantages for the trading partners made the trade rather volatile and a precarious issue. Political conditions, especially the loss of Chittagong in 1666, the mounting power of Mugol Bengal and the growing strength of the triumph of the dynasty of Alaungphaya, brought about an increasing degree of political stress at the center of the kingdom. External trade collapsed quite fast when internal turmoil was merely followed by weak kings barely able to uphold their hold of power (in the XVIIIth. century).



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Title: Elephant, Slaves and Rubies- Arakans place in the trade network of the Bay of Bengal
Author: Dr. Jacques P. Leider
About Author: Dr. Jacques P. Leider
Date: 12/28/2008
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